The ‘Odes of Solomon’: the Earliest Christian Hymnbook?

14b31-odes

An early papyrus fragment (not of this text)

 

I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.

These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.

An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. Scholars quickly established, however, that the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.

These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.

What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

An early representation of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

A fresco of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

 

There is a Helper for me: the Lord… He became like me, that I might receive Him.
I trembled not when I saw Him, for He was gracious to me.
Like my nature He became, that I might understand him; and like my form, that I might not turn away from Him.    Ode 7:3-6

It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.

What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).

Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].

A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:

I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.

To read the Odes of Solomon for yourself, follow this link. The Odes have of recent times been set to music – for more details, visit The Odes Project.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

8 responses to “The ‘Odes of Solomon’: the Earliest Christian Hymnbook?”

  1. VC says :

    How funny you talk about the Jewish disciples of Jesus in this post. I I have just been reading a book that claims that Christians are heretics. The apostles, Peter James and John and their heirs, the Jewish followers of Jesus, preserved his beliefs and practices as they strove to create the kingdom of God here on earth. Paul invented the idea of Jesus as a dying sacrificial god which Jesus’s original followers rejected. The book is Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs, exposes the church's hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars. Mr. Goudge does the world a service in reviewing who the followers of Jesus were. I found the book at http://tinyurl.com/69cazll

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    Thanks for these thoughts, VC. It's true that the Gentile churches, in the Pauline tradition, marginalised the Jewish believers to the point where, a generation later, ALL Jews (including Christian Jews) were rejected as having slain the Messiah. But I'm not sure I agree with the “Cover Up” position. If you read Bargil Pixner's piece about the Church of the Apostles in Jerusalem (http://www.centuryone.org/apostles.html), you find that, after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jewish believers built a church / messianic synagogue out of stones rescued from the demolished Temple, which sat there, all alone, in splendid isolation, a symbol of a backward-looking stance which wanted to retain the “specialness” of traditional Judaism – all of which runs counter to the call (in the 30s AD) to 'take the gospel to the whole creation'.

    Very little has been written about the Jewish Christian line in the earliest times. Bagatti's “Church from the Circumcision” (1971) is one (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_church_from_the_circumcision.html?id=DrYPAQAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y), and he traces a line via the so-called Minim, who for a while carried some power and who were, it's true. closer to the Johannine position, but who were already in decline.

    We need to be careful, i believe, with “conspiracy theories” (for example, Dan Brown resurrecting ancient Gnostic ideas about 'suppressed' extra-canonical writings). The hard contemporary evidence is often hard to come by, but usually tells convincingly in favour of natural wasteage rather than some plot by a religious mafia.

  3. Phil says :

    My impression when I read these 'Odes' is that they could be examples of 'interpretation of tongues' or 'prophesies' in the early Syrian Church. It's only a theory but I think it is worth looking into!

  4. Trevor Saxby says :

    I hadn't considered this, Phil, but I shall! Only Christians in the Pentecostal / Charismatic traditions will know what you're describing, but being from that stable myself, I know how interpretations of tongues often sound rather like this. Mind you, these too come through individuals whose vocabulary has been shaped by the psalms etc.

  5. Jennifer says :

    Fantastic, thank you for this thougtful introduction to the Odes, I share your enthusiasm and shall investigate further. Many blessings to you.

  6. John Vagabond says :

    Oh, YES! They seem to have structure and purpose, thanks for sharing them.
    I assume you had a listen to the Odes set to music? Try Ode 14 ‘Guide Me Home’. Your guys could do something with that.

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